John Nash was quoted in the film A Beautiful Mind as having said, “I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in assigning value to things.” I was reminded of this soon after meeting and befriending artist and entrepreneur Dave King. During the hours of our conversations, it became clear to me that though King has experienced what seems to be extraordinary luck in his life, it is more true to say that he used his values and courage to get where he is today. As we sat in the surreal space he owns and operates called SOWAL (pronounced SO-WALL) House, he shared with me how he came to be the chief visionary of this beautiful art house by the beach.
Some who know him might refer to his story as the typical “rags to riches” tale. Dave’s story is not typical, and every unusual element is true. Born to a young teenage mom, he was raised in rural Alabama on the outskirts of Birmingham in a small two-bedroom, one-bath house belonging to his great aunt Connie. He lived there with his loving mom, Bebe, and Connie’s young son. With a wistful look and gratitude in his voice, he said, “She raised all three of us.” By the time he reached high school, he knew he had developed a panache for art, drawing, and painting. In co-op style, the high school he attended allowed junior and senior students, if they chose, to end their school day by 11:00 am. Preferring the creative over the academic, Dave laughed and asked me, “Well, what do you think I chose?” After graduating, with no solid plan for college, he took time off from organized education, choosing instead to immerse himself in real-life learning by hanging out with his long-time friends. King remembered, “They’re musicians and ballet dancers, painters and photographers. The universe, for whatever reason, took this not-too-bright kid with no viable future and threw him into this creative class of people, artists, where everyone was going to college. And I was the one friend that wasn’t going to school.” As Christmas came, a handful of Dave’s friends did a truly extraordinary thing: they pitched in and bought him a semester of college. Dave said, “What an incredible thing, what an incredible group of friends. That changed my life.”
Thrust onto a new, unexpected path that would last many years, King said he changed majors several times, initially focusing on communications and broadcasting. One of Dave’s friends, having purchased a new desktop computer, gave Dave his old one. This being prior to the birth of the laptop, Dave was forced to rebuild the desktop to meet the demands of his classes. As one result, he ended up with a computer science degree. This was nearly a seven-year journey for King. He spent the first five years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, bartending to pay the bills, and of course, painting. “After year five, I was barely a junior because I had painted my way through school. If I didn’t sell enough paintings, then I just didn’t go to school that semester, or I would only take one class.” Eventually, he graduated from a small technical college after transferring his credits.
Dave’s core group of artist friends had long since spread across the country. After selling enough art to fund his tuition, he decided it was time for a change. With an ingrained creative arts talent, a bartending skill set, and his computer science degree, King decided to move to New York. By now, his mom Bebe had been married to his stepdad Mark, whom he thinks of as a father, for many years. He broke the news to his family that he was leaving. “Every day I was there, I was failing at my ambitions. Once I had that realization, I had a yard sale, and all my remaining paintings sold out.” In 2002, with a half-loaded U-Haul, $12,000 in his pocket, and a worried mother in the rearview mirror, Dave told me, “I drove all the way to Elizabeth, NJ, with Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ on repeat. I was driving up screaming and singing as loud as I could. It was like I was a jailbird that just flew away.”
Dave’s resourcefulness reached new heights when he purchased a small fold-out couch, a battery-operated lamp, and a coffee table from the IKEA store in Elizabeth. The unoccupied space in his U-Haul served as his short-term residence, but it wasn’t long before his ingenuity procured him a small apartment in Brooklyn. As I listened to Dave, it occurred to me that his move was just six months after 9/11. I asked if he had any fears about the timing and suggested that his move was a courageous thing to do. As he paused, I could see the sadness flash across his face, “I have this photograph in Liberty Park across the Hudson River with my book bag over my shoulder with the towers standing tall at my back. It was taken on September 4th, one week before 9/11. I was heartbroken but felt like I needed to be there more than ever. For me, it was about managing risk. One of the biggest risk lessons I’ve learned is if you’re about to leap into something, just measure what happens. Measure with full fidelity what happens if you fail, and if what happens if you fail is still greater than not doing it at all, then it’s your moral obligation to see it through.”
King did just that. After a period of walking to a nearby office supply store to use the internet to apply for jobs, King found himself in front of his mentor, Tucker Goodrich. Goodrich hired him at the hedge fund company Mariner Investment Group and took him under his wing. King credits Goodrich for teaching him the ropes in the world of finance while also becoming his friend and recognizing the social man and artist he was. He shared with me that Goodrich gave him some life-changing advice. King said, “We had just received our annual bonuses, and this was by far more money than I had ever seen. Tucker told me, ‘I don’t want you to invest any of that. I want you to spend it, and spend all of it. I want you to move to an apartment in Manhattan; I want you to move out of Brooklyn. I want you to start doing things that people in Manhattan society do.’ I knew he was right. It was an investment in myself. That wisdom changed my life.”
Dave had been away from the art scene during the transition from Alabama to New York but longed to be immersed in the creative world. He met his friend Rob Cantave and soon the two were socializing when they could. It was during this time that King met Bo Yung Kwon, who would later become his wife. It’s always good to save money when you can, and King said he wouldn’t have met Bo unless he was doing just that. Dave and Rob planned to attend the annual Summer Stage Concert in Central Park and agreed to a plan for free drinks at the event. One week ahead of the concert, after the stage was constructed, the two men slipped into the park at night and buried a bottle of bourbon near the stage. The night of the event, they arrived early to claim their spot, which they had walked off in paces to mark the bottle. It had been a week of rain and sunshine, so the area had quickly grown over. Questioning their position, they spread their blanket and sat down. This was Dave King’s lucky night. He gently plunged a finger into the grass by his side, and he hit glass. It was free bourbon for the concert, and a little liquid courage to walk up and speak to the beautiful woman he had spotted across the park. The year was 2007. They married in 2009 and had their son Peter in 2010.
Dave and Bo decided after much contemplation to move out of New York to the smaller city of Atlanta, feeling it was more conducive to raising an infant. Bo, an established optometrist, continued her work with the lucrative company Sol Moscot, and Dave continued to work long hours at a cyber security company, which kept him traveling. The family of three managed to squeeze in vacations to Santa Rosa Beach in Northwest Florida. Peter thrived, and eventually, they decided they would make Santa Rosa Beach their permanent home. After six and a half years in Atlanta, they relocated to Rosemary Beach, a coastal community located on the well-known gulf Scenic Highway 30A. Together they started South Walton Eye Care, but it was soon apparent to Dave that Bo had a mini talent. He said, “Turns out, she’s an amazing entrepreneur herself.”
Bo took the reins in her practice, and King found himself facing a sort of early retirement. He went from working eighty hours a week in a highly relevant and stressful job, to paddle boarding and working out. For some, this is a dream life, but for others, it can be a shock to the system with tertiary effects. King shared with me the night he thought he was dying. After severe signs and symptoms mimicking a heart attack, and a pivotal ambulance ride, he was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder. He said it was the paramedic, Frank, who explained to him that this is a common occurrence in high-functioning, highly driven businesspeople facing a sudden career change or retirement. Dave carries no shame or embarrassment in his openness about his mental health condition. As a result of his candor with friends, family, and other serial entrepreneurs, he discovered he is not alone in his condition. He has a theory: “The key ingredient to success is repetitive failure. There’s a direct correlation between the number of times you fail and your degree of success over a long trajectory. Failure can seem demoralizing or demeaning, so we fear it. It’s like saying the race car driver who totals the most cars winds up being the fastest, but we never talk about the long-term injury to the driver.” He continued, “We have to talk about it, acknowledge mental health and how common it is, and how damaging it can be. I try to check in regularly with friends as to how they are doing. Touching base with those I know in this context lets them know they are not alone, and then I don’t feel alone.” He credits Frank and his many years of experience with strongly suggesting he find something about which he is passionate and make it his job. For King, that was art. But first, he wanted to be sure he was up to the task.
King’s self-test was (with Bo’s blessing) to ask their young son Peter what he wanted to be when he grew up. “Whatever his answer was, that was what I would commit to doing for one year. If it was EMT or firefighter, I was doing it, I didn’t care. Astronaut, well, that would be a challenge physically, but I was going to try it.” Peter’s answer was, “YouTuber. I want to be a YouTuber.” With a $1,000 budget, he set a goal to reach one thousand subscribers within a year. He surpassed that and reached monetization in 13 months, setting a great example for his son. He was ready.
In January 2022, Dave, along with his long-time friend Rob Cantave as CMO, and additional partner Blake Jones as CFO, opened SOWAL House, a fitting name – SOWAL is an acronym for South Walton (the county where Rosemary Beach is located). As an evergreen visual artist, King recognized the Scenic County Highway 30A area as an art hub and a place where creatives were abundant. He dreamed of a place where he could not only give artists and creatives a space to utilize and express themselves but a space in which they could come together in a non-pressurized way to meet and share thoughts and ideas. The space itself is nothing short of spectacular. Seated in the heart of the Rosemary Beach neighborhood, SOWAL House is in itself a work of art, a vision from Dave’s mind. The space is dressed in rich jewel-tone colors, custom interactive lighting, and multiple lush seating areas. Various works of art adorn the walls, and a wet bar waits over a custom blue glass tile floor to serve various beverages to clientele and guests. Included is a full recording studio where King invites guests from all walks to create fascinating podcasts. But the showcase is the area of the room where various performers and artists can serve up their talents in a mathematically designed spot affording near-perfect sound and lighting conditions. Combined, it gives visitors a unique and intimate experience they will not soon forget. Since its opening, SOWAL House has hosted celebrity singer/songwriters, poets, and authors, and it even held an exclusive multi-artist gallery showing as a collective in the same event. King wanted to include as many people as he could and offers annual memberships as well as event rentals up to four times monthly. It is from these proceeds that he can open his doors to creatives from the area and others who place value on the arts, inviting them by way of a SOWAL House “Key Card,” which is shared with people of all backgrounds. King told me he wants the small gatherings to be made up of people from all walks of life, not so exclusive. “On any given night, we might have long-time successful businesspeople and millionaires meeting and sharing stories and experiences with students, baristas, and civil servants. SOWAL House is a place where everyone is equal.”
Dave’s vision has come to pass, and SOWAL House has taken flight. His little art house by the beach is feeding and revitalizing the art community and art culture of the Northwest Florida Panhandle. I have had the pleasure of watching King in his element during the many events I have attended in his eclectic space. He sits back taking it all in with a kind, authentic, and joyful smile. He walked over to me, leaned in, and said, “Coming from a rural Alabama background of humble beginnings, it gives me a healthy outsider perspective I wouldn’t have, had I been born into a life of privilege. Sometimes I feel like I slipped in through the back door, and I’m not supposed to be here.” He laughed and told me, “There’s always a little piece of me that feels at any given moment, someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and ask me to leave.” It’s this humble writer’s opinion that Dave King is finally home.